Video Games: The Intersection of Story and Simplicity

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Published by 5 years ago , last updated 11 months ago

Posted on December 24, 2014, Marcel Helion Video Games: The Intersection of Story and Simplicity

In the beginning was the pixel. While there may have been another, earlier beginning that involved a command line (and in fact, there was), it is with the pixel that the history of video games begins. For what is a game, if not a relationship between player and pixel, a dynamic interactive loop in which the decisions and actions of the former influence the subsequent actions of the latter, which in turn inspire yet more decisions and actions?

The early games were pure gameplay. The player was not concerned with why the space invaders were inexorably marching downward towards the planet he defended with his lone gun, nor did he inquire why his reinforcements were doled out parsimoniously, so that instead of doubling or even trebling his firepower, he was forced to defend Earth with but a single cannon. The player never learned why the alien invaders greedily increased their speed the lower they descended, or why the spaceships periodically flew past the battle without joining in or even stopping to watch the fireworks.

And they were cruel, harsh, unforgiving. Entire parties were butchered to a man in the Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, their unrecovered, unresurrected corpses left lying there as a warning to future adventurers. Bold fighters and clever mages starved to death in the wilds of Akalabeth, their courage and cunning availing them nothing in the absence of food. There was no stopping, no pausing, no saving, no respite in Pac-Man, in Donkey Kong, in Demon Attack.

But as technology improved, games began to become longer, more detailed, and gradually, more complex. It soon became necessary to pause and save games for the player to have any chance at playing through them, first periodically, then at specific “save points,” and finally, at will.

In terms of game design, this period may have marked the high point of design complexity and average difficulty; it’s probably not an accident that a list of the most difficult games routinely includes games from the late ’80s to the early ’90s; while the 2011-vintage Demon Souls is often mentioned, that is only because most games these days are considerably easier than Castlevania, Battletoads, and Ninja Gaiden.

After they stop laughing in disbelief at the crudity of the graphics of earlier games, many young gamers are astonished by both the difficulty and the richness of the games from those eras. And it is clear from a child-rearing experiment that Andy Baio, the founder of the XOXO conference, conducted with his son, that gamers developed different skills in the past than they do today.

In an article entitled “Playing With My Son” (, the proud father noted: “This approach to widely surveying classic games clearly had an impact on him, and influenced the games that he likes now. Like seemingly every kid his age, he loves Minecraft. No surprises there. But he also loves brutally difficult games that challenge gamers 2-3 times his age, and he’s frighteningly good at them…. Eliot’s early exposure to games with limited graphics inoculated him from the flashy, hyper-realistic graphics found in today’s AAA games. He can appreciate retro graphics on its own terms, and focus on the gameplay.”

Was it simply an increased focus that is responsible for today’s games being, as I see it, simpler and dumbed-down in comparison with the games of the past?

In this case, I think the correlation is not indicative of causality. Even if a much higher percentage of much larger budgets are devoted to graphics than in years past, there is no reason to believe that designers are being starved of either time or resources.

There are more responsible culprits for the simplification, which I suggest include the following factors:

  • Branding
  • Aging and expansion of the player base
  • Touch and mobile technology
  • Narrative

In my opinion, the reason branding is an increasingly problematic issue in game design is that the finance people inside and outside the publishers have very little interest in how the game actually plays. It is the brand into which they are investing, and even if the brand was originally established on the basis of superior gameplay, they are not interested in the gameplay aspects and do not wish to devote the necessary time required to develop and test it properly.

As long as a sufficiently marketable brand is present, any level of gameplay is considered sufficient. Only if there is no notable brand with which to sell the game does the question of gameplay seriously enter the picture. This is why most gameplay advances tend to come from unbranded and lesser-branded games.

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